America’s propaganda war

By Zubeida Mustafa                               Page –

IN the current American ‘war against terror’, words and images have proved to be as potentially lethal as the missiles, that the US aircraft are raining down on Kabul every day. If the bombs are designed to destroy the “enemy’s” military power, the media’s propaganda war is paradoxically directed towards the people of the United States itself. Without their tacit support, the Bush administration would find it difficult to conduct military operations against another country. This is so because it has bypassed the constitutional requirement for a formal declaration of war, he has become the practice in Washington, Hence the need to mobilize popular opinion in favour of a senseless war which will kill innocent civilians and not yield fruitful results.

It is in this context that the role of the American media has acquired such immense significance. The television and the press, which traditionally performed the functions of informing, educating and entertaining the viewers and readers are now going further. They are being used to manipulate powerful public sentiments. Be it rage, sympathy or fear, the media have the capacity to whip up these feelings and even give them a direction. In fact, the difference between the administration’s line and the media has blurred so much so that they serve as “unapologetic cheerleaders for the Pentagon”. Although the Economist of London did pose the question of whether this is a propaganda war, nobody in the West really wants to admit that it is. What the CNN, Fox news channel and MNBC and other television net-works are conducting it undoubtedly a propaganda war, albeit with a difference. Propaganda wars have traditionally been directed at the enemy to demoralize it. This time, the media’s psychological offensive focuses in the American audience.

For a government posing to be the guardian of the frontiers of freedom and liberty, it would be a severe loss of face to admit that while it preaches the virtues of democracy and liberty to others, it is attempting to give a slant on its own media reports. Of course when the White House “requests” the television  network executives to “exercise judgment” in broadcasting statements by Osama bin Laden (courtesy Al-Jazeera television), it does not term it as censorship. The narrow selfish aims of the government are euphemistically described as national interests.

For the media it would be professionally disastrous to own up that they have hidden agendas, which are not divergent from the administration’s. According to one complaining American journalist, US media people have wrapped themselves in the Stars and Stripes. After all, a free and independent press and impartiality and accuracy in reporting are the hallmarks of excellence in a democratic society, especially if the media are to play their watchdog role. That is the lesson that has come down to us from the democracies of the West.

And yet, how would you explain the consistent pattern that is discernable in the Western media’s coverage of the “war on terrorism.” It is not difficult to see the logic behind this pattern. Immediately after the September 11 incident, when America was gripped by a sense of intense shock and grief, the media shared the pain.  Then they went further. They became the mouthpieces of the Bush administration. The president’s outbursts of anger and arrogance were just fully reported. They were given unquestioning support even though they had been designed to assuage the people’s grief and to help him gain a firm grip on power. There was talk of teaching the terrorists a  nasty lesson by unleashing the might of the American war machine against them. American pride and been hurt – it being the first time that the American mainland had been attacked and the cry for vengeance was in the air. The parallel with Pearl Harbour was drawn. Mr.Bush also spoke of a crusade without understandings its implications. The media surged ahead and were soon leading and fuelling the war psychosis that drove the government on to launch the aerial strikes on Afghanistan on October 7.

No one stopped to ask whether one could fight a war with modern weapons against a hidden enemy? How heavy would the collateral losses be in terms of civilian lives? For how long would the so-called coalition Mr. Bush was assembling hold together? What direction would diplomacy and political process take?

As the futility of the American military operation in Afghanistan emerges, the need for keeping the American public firmly behind the government’s policy has acquired greater urgency. And that is why the propaganda war has also taken on a new intensity. We who have experienced the worst kinds of press controls tend to forget that in a free society, as America is, the need for “manufacturing consent” is much greater than here. The government simply cannot afford to be seen as crushing brutally all voices of dissent. If the questioning voices become too loud they can actually hamper the working of the government.

Hence the need to create conditions in which these questions are not asked. In the cases of Afghanistan this has posed no difficulty. The American media are known for being notoriously provincial. Before September 11, it was said that only six per cent of the total news coverage on network television was devoted to foreign news. Small wonders, the average American knows so little about the world and is now asking, “Why do they hate us?”

An easy way to silence the potential dissenters is to scare them. The administration also fuels these fears to force the people to fall in line and cooperate with the government in its mission against terrorism. How is this done?

If television networks give massive coverage to the Islamic radicals and portray the entire population in the Muslim countries rooting for a war (crusade, to use Mr. Bush’s word) how would an average American react? Images of slogan-chanting bearded mullahs burning effigies of  George W. Bush and waving posters of Osama bin Laden would stir feelings of anger and fear. Can you blame the average American? How would he with no exposure to Islam know the sentiments of the majority in this country who do not support the religious parties? The CNN has chosen not to project this said of the coin at all.

Then by giving minimal coverage to the collateral losses which Mr.Donald Rumsfeld, the American Secretary of Defence, makes light, of the media have ensured that feelings of sympathy will not be generated. That also helps the administration in the conduct of the war. A messy war will lead to uncomfortable questions. So don’t show the mess.

Now the anthrax scare has provided the media with another opportunity to divert public attention away from the war. The moot point is why are the media not asking questions? As John Pilger, the British journalist who is also a dissident activist, writes.”It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surrounds it.”

Not only are the pertinent questions missing. There is not enough independent analysis of the news.  The commentators who appear on television are the same pro-establishment bunch who reinforce and reaffirm the government’s message without clarifying the situation.

This letter from an American friend studying in Brown University, Rhode Island, is an eye-opener: “In any case, I don’t think people here realize the nuances that you pointed out. I certainly didn’t know that the protesters were not necessarily mainstream Pakistanis. We are beginning to hear more about destabilization in the region. I think that people here just feel confused. There was initially a strong desire to do something, but no one can really clarify what that thing should be. Initially, the bombing did seem to address that base instinct to last out. But now we are seeing the photos and reading the stories of the innocent Afghan civilians who have lost loved ones or were forced to flee alongside photos of children at the funerals of their mothers/fathers who died on September 11. This is causing many people to be torn in both directions.

So now we are starting to see the first layers of complexity and with it the realization that there is no easy solution. And so the voices of dissent are growing a little louder. I should feel a little better that is this morass of politics, military action, etc. this email technology allows us to communicate and help keep our friends better informed of what is going on. I just wish it could help save lives. So many people have died already and it scares me that we hear of more each day.

The question to be asked is: why are the media interested in promoting war so relentlessly when nothing is being gained and a lot is being lost? The next question is: do the big media barons in the West (Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and others) have a vested interest in the continuation of the war? The only party, which stands to gain from a war, is the arms industry and one wonders if anyone has investigated its connections with the media.

Source: Dawn, 15 Nov 2001